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Belgian election tests limits of media's far-right boycott

Ella Joyner in Brussels
June 4, 2024

The media in Belgium's Francophone region tightly control coverage of the far right. Experts say it has kept extremists at bay. But is it fair? And can it last?

 Tom Van Grieken at a podium with the Vlaams Belang logo
Tom Van Grieken's right-wing populist Vlaams Belang party is likely to win big in Belgium's parliamentary electionsImage: Nicolas Maeterlinck/dpa/picture alliance

From Austria to Italy, France and the Netherlands, the ascending star of the far right in swaths of Europe has been the standout political story for much of the past 12 months.

Tiny, often-overlooked Belgium is no exception, with the once-fringe Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party set to storm national polls on June 9. Advocating, among other things, for the secession of the northern region Flanders and an "immigration stop," VB is projected to take the most seats of any party: 26 out of 150, according to calculations by news outlet Politico, up from just three in 2014.

Except that's only half the story, and the other half changes everything.

Belgium, established almost 200 years ago as a mishmash federal state, is a tale of two countries: French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north (Brussels is its own little island in Flanders). And in the Francophone south, it is not the success of the far right that is the story, but the absence of VB or a similar force.

Far right has no 'direct voice' in Wallonia

If you turn on Wallonia's public broadcaster RTBF, you will almost never see far-right politicians making the case for closed borders or lamenting the downfall of Western civilization on live television. Most Belgian Francophone journalists enforce what's known as the "cordon sanitaire" (French for protective or sanitary barrier). Their colleagues to the north in Flanders do not ― since the rule does not exist there.

"The rule is that the far right should not be given a direct voice, a direct live access to media," explained Maria Udrescu, a journalist with the French-language Belgian daily newspaper La Libre. "You can quote far-right politicians for instance, but those quotes always have to be put in a context."

Another reason you won't see any far-right politicians live on RTBF is that there simply aren't big players to interview. Udrescu said it's like asking "Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is there no far right in Wallonia because there is the 'cordon sanitaire', or is the 'cordon sanitaire' easy to hold because there is no far right in Wallonia?"

For Benjamin Biard, a researcher at the Center for Research and Sociopolitical Information (CRISP) in Belgium, this partial media boycott is an important factor in the absence of a powerful far right in Wallonia, but it's certainly not the whole story.

"It reduces visibility," he said. "A lot of people simply don't know about the parties. Because they do exist, trying to put forward candidates and run for election."

If you look at survey data, many people in Wallonia appear to hold similar views to far-right voters in Flanders, France and Germany. There are plenty who think, for example, "that immigration increases problems of security or insecurity, that immigration impoverishes the country's economic and cultural life," said Biard.

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In theory Wallonia ― once Belgium's industrial heartland but long in relative decline compared with populous, prosperous Flanders ― should be fertile ground for nationalism.

"It's a question of the electoral offer," said Biard.

Emergent far-right parties have been plagued by internal divisions, a lack of charismatic leaders as well as a highly organized regional anti-fascist movement, quick to protest and disrupt any gathering.

Questions of fairness

The 'cordon sanitaire', first introduced by RTBF some 30 years ago after a massive electoral surge for VB's predecessor, Vlaams Blok, applies to any extremist group that espouses illiberal ideology. In practice, it has only really applied to the far right, a fact that hasn't escaped criticism.

"Francophone Belgium is the European laboratory for new authoritarianism," Mathieu Bock-Cote, a prominent Francophone conservative commentator, wrote on social media platform X in March amid debate about applying the rule to the second-largest party in Flanders, conservative-nationalist NV-A, as well.

"The cordon sanitaire is not democratic," Alain Destexhe, a former Belgian senator and member of Brussels Regional Parliament, wrote in the small right-wing outlet Pan the same month. "Far from fighting censorship, Belgian Francophone media proudly declare themselves openly hostile to political forces they decree are anti-democratic."

Belgian journalist Udrescu acknowledged there is debate about fairness.

"It's not an exact science," she said. "We've had many questions. Like should it be applied to the far left too? And what about the N-VA?"

Political quarantine, but for how long?

For people in Wallonia, and indeed the Flemish far right, the problem isn't just Francophone media restrictions. After a 1991 electoral breakthrough for the Vlaams Blok, the major traditional parties, including the N-VA, teamed up and pledged not to govern in coalition with the group.

That means that even though Vlaams Belang looks set to emerge triumphant in the June 9 election, leader Tom Van Grieken almost certainly won't become prime minister. Belgian government coalitions tend to be broad and complicated, reflecting the fragmented nature of a country with several parallel political systems. As well as Flanders and Wallonia, there is also the Brussels region, plus a tiny German-speaking community in the east.

 Tom Van Grieken standing at a podium on a stage
Van Grieken feels treated unfairly Image: Nicolas Maeterlinck/dpa/picture alliance

For now, VB politicians in Flanders are hemmed in by the political cooperation boycott.

"If Flemish Interest is the largest party, the others can no longer hide behind the undemocratic cordon," Van Grieken said in a written statement this month, throwing the gauntlet down for N-VA in particular.

Wallonia holds the line ― for now

Meanwhile, in Wallonia, the traditional center-left Parti Socialiste and center-right Mouvement Reformateur parties still top the polls. But a new self-declared "patriotic" party, the extreme right Chez Nous (Our Home) entered the scene in 2021, and won the initial backing of France's National Rally and Vlaams Belang.

Chez Nous is reportedly very popular on social media, though it's hard to predict whether it will win any seats. According to one poll published by Le Soir newspaper in late 2023, about 1% of respondents in Wallonia and Brussels said they would vote Chez Nous.

In the view of political scientist Biard, the reason the media coverage rule has held so far in Wallonia is that it was institutionalized before the far right gained a strong foothold.

"If tomorrow we have a far right that is gaining a certain traction in society, it will obviously be much harder to keep it out of the media," he said.

For now, the rules are holding, but that doesn't mean the political landscape won't change, he stressed.

"I think that in other ways, faster than we can anticipate, a far right will eventually develop in Wallonia too," he said.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker